1 Hr., 59 Mins.
Modesty Blaise April 5, 2018
eople overcompensate when they’re trying to hide something. I often think of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012) when pondering this unsaid truth. In that movie, which is an autobiographical documentary, we discover that Polley is the product of an extramarital affair. Her parents stayed together for years, and so, in lieu of several family members knowing something was afoot, Polley long thought the man who raised her was actually her father.
Family members recalled how frantic Polley’s mother was in the years
following her daughter’s birth. Any characteristics that were distinctly not of the Polley brand were almost feverishly addressed. She would excessively remark how different her daughter looked in comparison to her siblings, gratuitously trying to convince everyone that any sort of otherness was simply the fault of random genetics. Most family members could tell, however, that this desperation was a mechanism to cover something up.
Modesty Blaise (1966), a pulpy adaptation of the popular British comic strip of the same name, is also trying to hide something. Not infidelity, no – though I’m sure it wouldn’t be opposed to such a concept, given its egregious depictions of debauchery and profligacy. Perpetually in visual overdrive and superglued to a tonally off, comically desperate camp, it implements stylistic and material muchness as devices to counterbalance and perhaps even hide the fact that it is a hollow, plodding movie.
It revolves around our eponymous lady spy’s (Monica Vitti) efforts to protect a diamond shipment that’s attracted the attention of a nefarious, bottle-blonde super-criminal (Dirk Bogarde), and all the double-crossings and plot twists that follow suit. Some atmospheric supplements include a dyad of casual musical sequences, unfailingly wacky characters, a superabundance of bad accents, and so many wig and costume changes you’ll wonder if the movie in any way inspired Madonna’s 1993 world tour.
But for all its aesthetic hysteria, indifference is the emotion best reserved for this material. Directed by the eminently eccentric filmmaker Joseph Losey, the film is a wholly misguided, entirely miscast attempt at both cashing in on the James Bond-enforced spy craze of the period and trying to make an American star out of its international leading lady. What it attempts to do – bill itself a spy semi-spoof with just enough eye candy and pomp to keep up with 007 and the boys even when it’s fucking around – would later be perfected by Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik (1968) and, perhaps more generously, Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968). Those films, shortcomings and all, more or less competently accomplished what they set out to do: serve as half-joking comic-style misadventures that nimbly kept audiences excited and teased.
Modesty Blaise perennially sits but analogizes this with a lightning-quick sprint. It thinks surrounding underwhelming material with overwrought eye candy and in-the-know one-liners will distract us from extensive shabbiness and exhausting overplotting. The pandemonium feels depressingly purposeful and desperate – a last-minute follow-up to a realization that the finished product is not nearly going to be as good as the thing thought up during the agonies of pre-production.
The film’s inability to come alive has a lot to do with Vitti, who plays Blaise with a sort of subtle stiffness that makes it clear that she’s uncomfortable, trapped inside her head. In even the most playful of a scene, it is obvious that Vitti is doing her best impression of someone having a good time.
Her placement in a film of Modesty Blaise’s caliber wasn’t such an unusual venture for British and American studios during the era. It was commonplace to try to make international stars out of women like Catherine Deneuve, Sophia Loren, Isabelle Adjani, and others by placing them in English-speaking roles in which they were confined to one-note, “exotic” parts. (See Deneuve in 1969’s The April Fools, Sophia Loren in the majority of the most terrible studio picture of the 1950s and ‘60s, and Adjani in 1978’s The Driver.)
Vitti is one of the great actresses – her performance in 1964’s Red Desert is among the most profound and emotionally vivid in cinema history. But to place her in a movie in which everything she does goes directly against what she had built her name off – in a different language, no less – was a head-scratching and ultimately injurious career move. Her apparent uncomfortability throughout Modesty Blaise takes us out of the espionage-heavy bubble by which we’re likely supposed to be entrapped.
Some circles find the movie cherishable, to be a camp classic to keep you rolling. In some ways, regarding Modesty Blaise as such is understandable — its candy colors and its kitschy over-dressing do invoke some pangs of materialistic pleasure. But given its obvious potential, that isn’t good enough. It’s an embarrassment that could have been more than just a flat sign of the times. C-